In Memory of my Grandmother
Rita Barbara Roman
April 4th, 1933 - January 17, 2012
My grandmother recently departed this life after a brief but difficult struggle with cancer. A funeral service was held on January 22nd in Binghamton. Her four children and I each had an opportunity to speak.
Following is the speech I wrote and delivered in her memory:
I’m Mike Webb, firstborn grandson.
Imagine yourself in a house you have never left. Virtually your entire existence has been defined by what lies between its walls, supplemented only by the impoverished snapshot of the immediate outside world afforded by the windows.
It’s a perfectly lovely house with agreeable décor and furnishings, and indeed it’s all you’ve ever known. But one day, you leave the house and embark on a journey. When you first step out the door, the view is comparable to what you’ve always seen through the windows. But once you reach the end of the street, you pause and look back, and for the first time ever, you see your house amid other houses. You see an entire beautiful neighborhood.
After a moment, you continue on your way, through other neighborhoods and eventually into the open countryside, where once again you pause and look back. You can no longer see your house, nor even your neighborhood, but instead you see a beautiful city, the extent and boundaries of which you had never envisioned nor even imagined. It had simply never been part of your reality. And although you can no longer see it, you know your house is still there, in its neighborhood, in turn within that city.
So you continue on into the countryside, and after nightfall you stop to rest. For the third time, you look back, and what you previously saw as a city is now but a distant glow on the horizon. And that same otherwise dark horizon is punctuated intermittently by the glow of other cities and towns. But somewhere in the distance, you know your house is there, in your neighborhood, inside your city.
As we all go about our individual journeys, we tend to keep our eyes ahead so we can see where we’re going, such that whenever we do pause to look back, our perspective has broadened significantly and in ways we never could have imagined.
Forgive the lengthy metaphor, but as I debated what I was going to say today, I realized it underscores how I relate to my grandmother, and her life, in so many ways. A grandmother who I spent my youngest years calling “Gramma,” but who, sometime in the last two decades, I came to refer to simply as “Gram.”
Occasionally, in all its meanderings, life endows us with such a paradigm-shifting realization; and we see, with renewed and unprecedented clarity, that what we always took to be typical and ordinary is in fact precious, and extraordinary. I had the gift of a gramma who I always knew, and who was always there, with a very active role in my life. I grew up thinking this was typical; only with time and my own increasing awareness and independence did I see how uncommon and special it was. How special she was. And still is.
A few days ago, when I got together with my mom and Uncles Marshall and Mike to put together the collage and slideshow, we went through several generations’ worth of photos – quite literally thousands – dating back at least to the 1920s, when Gram’s parents were a young couple. There were numerous, shall we say, selectively and sporadically labeled photos of her father, her mother, and an assortment of random relatives and friends, including some unknown fellow named “Woody” who kept showing up all over the place. (After a while, we started simply referring to any unknown person in any old photo as “Woody,” a name that came to lie at the intersection of expediency and dry humor – a Roman trademark if there ever was one.)
When we went through all those photos, it was ostensibly a tribute to Gram, a celebration of her life, and a nostalgic gesture to everybody who would be in attendance today. But what it became for me personally was a poignant realization of the magnitude and depth of her life and legacy. Because long before she was Gram or even Gramma, she was Mom, and she was sister and daughter earlier still. A lifetime – many lifetimes, even – all a part of her story. A story I had witnessed only in part, but which now unfolded before me like a torrent of love, of compassion, and of humanity.
At the time I was born, having recently finished raising her own four children, one might think she’d be a little weary of All Things Baby. Bottles, burping, diapers, naps, crying, vomiting (especially in my case), and numerous other things I’ve done my best to forget having been the source of – to say nothing of years later, endlessly harassing her to play Monopoly, or some other board game, or play outside with me, or all manner of other childlike whims that seem to presume the attending adult couldn’t possibly have anything better to do.
But from the photos, and indeed from everything I do remember, she embraced the role without hesitation. Her “mommy switch” flipped back on as though it had never been off. Although she occasionally reminded me over the years of how my finicky sleep habits as an infant made it very difficult for her to enjoy her Yankees games, I know that beneath that signature dry humor lay an adoration and love that never once wavered in the 32 years I was blessed to have her in my life.
But I certainly don’t claim exclusivity; I merely had the benefit of proximity. As the photos readily bear out, the arrival of each subsequent grandchild, and ultimately her great-grandchild who she finally met only recently, engendered that familiar loving response. Indeed, it wasn’t not so much a response as it was simply who she was. And it’s worth noting that her various furry companions over the years were no exception, perhaps most saliently our beloved Kermit, by whom she was abruptly and unexpectedly predeceased by not even two weeks.
I lived in California from the summer after my college graduation in 2003 until late 2010. My return was motivated by many factors, but Gram’s advancing age was a not-insignificant consideration. Once I returned to Ithaca, I tried to capitalize on the luxury of being only an hour’s drive away, usually going to Binghamton at least once a week and often more. And yet still, as she lay in her hospital bed and it began to be clear that she wouldn’t be with us much longer, I found myself looking back, rifling through my memories, and practically auditing myself. Questioning whether I’d spent enough time with her, whether I’d done enough to show her that her love was deeply appreciated and reciprocated. And I was saddened by the fear that I had not done enough. I allayed this fear somewhat when I discussed it with a friend who lost his mom a few years ago, and we agreed that for a cherished loved one, nothing we do ever really feels like enough to us. And I drew some comfort from that understanding.
But still it bothered me. A few days after Gram was transferred to hospice and I feared time may be running out, I asked for a moment alone with her. I won’t go into all the things I said to her, but I did tell her I love her very much, that I appreciate everything she’d done for me, and that I wished I’d done more to show it. And although she was not able to speak at the time, I could tell from her expressions and gestures that she heard and understood me, and almost seemed to be trying to tell me “it’s okay,” and that I need not worry. For that moment, I truly believe – or at the very least, I hope with all the will that I can summon – that we were both at peace.
I shall always cherish my memories of even the simplest things we shared. Even if it was just going to Friendly’s or IHOP with my mom on Friday evenings this past summer and then watching a few hours of TV together (which, if you know me, you’d realize was pretty much the only TV I watched). And I proved that I can allow her to get through a Yankees game more or less undisturbed, although I occasionally horrified her and risked excommunication by asking questions like, “Who was in the World Series last year?”
I hope she would be honored to know that many things she taught me are indelibly etched in my mind. How “hopefully” is not really a word, how you “lie down” as opposed to “lay down,” how the correct pronunciation of “fortay” as it’s often used was traditionally “fort,” and many other miscellaneous nuggets of language and grammar (and don’t even get me started on how my young mind concluded that somebody called “Gramma” being an expert on “grammar” was somehow both expected and appropriate). She joined other immediate family in kindling and actively facilitating my interest in science and technology. Although I did not decide to pursue a technical career, the breadth of knowledge she encouraged me to embrace has served me very well. The mere fact that when I built two nine-foot towers out of Construx, she allowed them to stand in the living room for the better part of a year – twice! – says everything.
The path my life has taken, especially in the last year-and-a-half, has often led me to ponder the old adage about “You can never go home.” I think I have often favored a more cynical interpretation – that who we become through the gradual attrition of innocence and accumulation of scars makes that which we once called “home” somehow less tenable as “home” to our present selves. But standing here today, I see it more as enrichment and broadening of perspective, something that grows noticeably every time we pause in our journeys to look fondly over our shoulder, to gaze upon where we’ve been, and off in the distance to where it all began.
For when I return to that house, in that neighborhood, in that city, although the furnishings and décor may have evolved, and the trees and the cars parked outside are different, essentially it’s still largely as I remember it. The only difference is now, I am aware of the neighborhood, I am aware of the city, and to some degree I am aware of the universe as a whole within which that house exists.
Thank you, Gram, for always being a part of “home,” both in what I remember and in how I live today. For all the love, caring, and guidance you always showed, you live on not just in my memory – but in who I am, and in who I endeavor to be. And I hope your own journey has brought you some fulfillment and peace.
In closing, I recall a bedtime ritual we shared in my childhood. There was a small square of paper I kept by my bed that served as a “cue card” of sorts, and for what must have been several years, I wasn’t content and ready to drift off until we echoed the familiar refrain that it prompted. And so I echo it again today, at least with the degree of accuracy my memory permits: Gram, I love you a million billion googols, to the infinite power, and all that stuff.
And I always will.